Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow in early 1912 to begin his public teaching career. Accounts by his pupils during this time indicate that Gurdjieff was generally vague and indefinite about the sources of his knowledge and his connection with those who transmitted it to him, but did mention “Tibetan monasteries, the Chitral, Mount Athos; Sufi schools in Persia, in Bokhara and eastern Turkestan . . . and dervishes of various orders.” (2)
Early in the Russian phase of his teaching, Gurdjieff discussed with his students the three traditional ways or focuses of spiritual development: the body (‘the way of the fakir’); the emotions (‘the way of the monk’); and the mind (‘the way of the yogi’). He suggested that there existed another way based on the simultaneous development of all three aspects, which he called the Fourth Way: “Instead of discipline, faith and meditation, this way calls for the awakening of another intelligence – knowing and understanding.” (3) Gurdjieff placed particular importance on this path and emphasized that this teaching was unique and previously unknown to the West. (4)
Critics of Gurdjieff”s teaching have focused on three major issues: Gurdjieff’s belief in a ‘Fourth Way’ which is independent of traditional spiritual paths; his claim that contemporary religions represent a distortion of once valid teachings; and his unorthodox interpretation of many traditional Christian beliefs.
Gurdjieff’s contention that a more comprehensive and superior path of inner development (the Fourth Way) exists beyond the traditional religious ways has disturbed some traditional metaphysicians and philosophers like Whithall Perry: “Thus in one stroke do we see the likes of Rumi, St. Francis of Assisi, and Sankârachârya eliminated – unless one replies that they were secret practitioners of the Fourth Way.” (5)
René Guénon was especially critical of Gurdjieff, calling him a “charlatan” and disapproving of his Fourth Way teachings which he claimed failed to give sufficient emphasis to the performance of religious rituals and sacraments for purification of the soul.
Gurdjieff was clearly conversant with the tenets and practices of the major world religions but was generally dismissive of traditional religions, believing them to be virtually useless as vehicles for spiritual development. (6) In his writings, especially Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, Gurdjieff argued that modern Christianity, Buddhism and Islam have been modified and distorted out of all recognition from their original forms. In respect to Christianity he charged that “into this teaching of truth and verity, they began also to mix for various egoistic and political reasons, fragments taken from other religious teachings . . . [which] had not only nothing in common with the teaching of Jesus, but which sometimes even flatly contradicted the truths this Divine Teacher taught.” (7) He felt that Buddhism and Islam had undergone a similar process of deformation.
Although many of Gurdjieff’s ideas have been criticized for their departure from traditional religious dogma and beliefs, much of the criticism is due to a failure to distinguish between the outer (exoteric) form of religious observances and beliefs and the inner (esoteric) spiritual core:
Every real religion . . . consists of two parts. One part teaches what is to be done. This part becomes common knowledge and in the course of time is distorted and departs from the original. The other part teaches how to do what the first part teaches. This part is preserved in secret in special schools and with its help it is always possible to rectify what has been distorted in the first part or to restore what has been forgotten . . . This secret part exists in Christianity also as well as in other religions and it teaches how to carry out the precepts of Christ and what they really mean. (8)
Gurdjieff’s contention that religions undergo a process of degeneration with the passage of time is borne out in many spiritual traditions. It is almost a natural law that a valid spiritual teaching will be subject to change and dilution over time, particularly its external practices which may be different or even in complete conflict with earlier sanctions.
Research by contemporary religious scholars has shown that many Christian texts like the New Testament scriptures have been modified from their original meaning through editing and imperfect translation. This supports Gurdjieff’s claim that: “There exists no explanation that even approximately resembles the truth, because what is written in the Gospels has been in the first place, much distorted in being copied and translated; and secondly, it is written for those who know.” (9)
Following his death in 1949, Gurdjieff was reviled by some members of the French Catholic hierarchy, who called him an “emissary of the devil.” This antipathy toward Gurdjieff was partly due to his perceived heretical pronouncements regarding certain traditional Christian beliefs. Gurdjieff for his part generally held Catholic priests and representatives of the Church in contempt, sometimes shouting at them in public or swearing “Shoo! Son of a bitch.” (10)
Gurdjieff departed from orthodox Christian doctrine by insisting that Jesus was not unique nor the only ‘Son of God.’ He regarded Jesus Christ as one of a number of ‘Messengers from Above,’ including Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Saint Lama. Gurdjieff also disavowed the resurrection of Christ following his death, stating that once a person dies they will never exist again as the same being. Gurdjieff maintained that Judas was a saint and the most devoted and evolved of the disciples: He alone understood the purpose of Jesus’ mission on earth and served a higher good by his selfless action and conscious betrayal of Christ.
Gurdjieff denied that God was omnipotent and in his writings preferred to use bombastic expressions like “OUR COMMON ALL-EMBRACING UNI-BEING AUTOCRAT ENDLESSNESS” to describe the Creator. He referred to the deity worshipped by most Christians as “Mister God” and reserved little respect for their prayers and petitions to this being. A further irritant was his choice of Beelzebub, a fallen angel, as the central character in Beelezebub’s Tales to His Grandson.
Gurdjieff taught a version of the history of Christianity completely at variance with orthodox Christian dogma. He argued that the Christian religion existed many millennia before the birth of Jesus Christ:
The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know . . . Only small bits of it survived in historical times, and these bits have been preserved in secret and so well that we do not even know where they have been preserved. It will seem strange to many people when I say that this prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity. (11)
Perhaps the most controversial of Gurdjieff’s ideas, particularly offensive to Christians, was his radical reinterpretation of what occurred at the Last Supper. He claimed that Christ’s disciples actually ate his flesh and drank his blood, not bread and wine, as part of a sacramental ceremony: “[His disciples] wanted to establish a permanent link with Christ . . . The Last Supper was a magical ceremony similar to ‘bloodbrotherhood’ for establishing a connection between ‘astral bodies’.” (12)
(1) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 111.
(2) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 36.
(3) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. xiii.
(4) Jeanne de Salzmann, who was Gurdjieff’s pupil for more than forty years, believes that the ancient Fourth Way teaching he brought to the West contained knowledge from a higher level that could be understood only when it became a ‘living’ teaching. In The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010, p. 23) she writes:
The science underlying the Fourth Way is ancient, although it has been forgotten. It is a science that studies man not just as he is but as he can become. It regards man as having a possibility of evolving, and studies the facts, the principles and the laws of this evolution. This is an evolution of certain qualities that cannot develop by themselves. It cannot be mechanical. This evolution calls for conscious effort and for seeing . . . The Fourth Way is to be lived.
(5) Whithall Perry Gurdjieff in Light of Tradition (Bedfont, Middlesex: Perennial Books, 1978), p. 46.
(6) Some followers of established religions, especially Christians, have been critical of what they perceive as Gurdjieff’s dismissal and contempt of religion. A closer examination of Gurdjieff’s writings reveals a more complex and sophisticated point of view. Gurdjieff always respected the founders of the great world religions and the spiritual principles they conveyed. Rather, he took issue with the way that religious values and beliefs were practised by the majority of the followers of certain faiths. In a talk to his students recorded by P.D. Ouspensky (In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949, p. 299) he elaborated:
Religion is doing: a man does not merely think his religion or feel it, he ‘lives’ his religion as much as he is able, otherwise it is not religion but fantasy or philosophy. Whether he likes it or not he shows his attitude towards religion by his actions and he can show his attitude only by his actions. Therefore if his actions are opposed to those which are demanded by a given religion he cannot assert that he belongs to that religion. The vast majority of people who call themselves Christians have no right whatever to do so, because they not only fail to carry out the demands of their religion but they do not even think that these demands ought to be carried out . . . No one has a right to call themselves a Christian who does not carry out Christ’s precepts.
(7) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), pp. 702-703.
(8) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 97.
(9) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 304.
(10) Luba Gurdjieff Everitt Luba Gurdjieff: A Memoir with Gurdjieff (Berkeley: California: SLG Books, 1997), p. 64.
(11) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 302.
(12) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 97-98.
(13) Ernest Scott The People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983), pp. 157-158.
(14) Whithall Perry Gurdjieff: In Light of Tradition (Bedfont, Middlesex: Perennial Books, 1978), p. 9.
(15) Philip Kapleau The Three Pillars of Zen (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p. 139.
(16) Thomas Cleary Transmission of Light (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. xx.
(17) Omar Ali-Shah The Sufi Tradition in the West (New York: Alif, 1994), pp. 223-224.
(18) John G. Bennett Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett (Tucson: Omen Press, 1974), p. 154.
(19) In the late 1930s Ouspensky and some of his senior students attempted to make contact with representatives of certain Sufi Orders which they believed could lead them to the source of Gurdjieff’s teaching. But with the outbreak of the Second World War the project was abandoned.
(20) Omar Ali-Shah The Sufi Tradition in the West (New York: Alif, 1994), p. 226.
(21) Rafael Lefort is widely believed in spiritual circles to be a pseudonym of Idries Shah, the Sufi author and teacher. His book The Teachers of Gurdjieff is clearly constructed as a series of fables and is not meant to represent factual reality. However, it does present an interesting Sufi perspective on the nature of Gurdjieff’s teaching mission and the sources of his knowledge.
(22) Rafael Lefort The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 32.
(23) Rafael Lefort The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 56.
(24) Rafael Lefort The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 131.
(25) G.I. Gurdjieff Views From the Real World (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), p. 56.
(26) Margaret Anderson The Unknowable Gurdjieff (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 6.
(27) Thomas de Hartmann in Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff (London: Penguin Books, 1992, p. 183) recorded Gurdjieff’s response to a question by an English student at the Prieuré in the 1920s regarding the source of his ideas:
Q: Does the teaching of Mr. Gurdjieff form part of some historical school still in existence?
A: My teaching is my own. It combines all the evidence of ancient truth that I collected in my travels with all the knowledge I have acquired through my own personal work.
(28) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 80.
(29) C.S. Nott Journey Through this World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 31.
(30) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 173.
(31) John G. Bennett Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett (Tucson: Omen Press, 1974), p. 284.
(32) Jacob Needleman “Introduction” in The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work ed. Jacob Needleman (Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2008, p. xxviii.
(33) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. xiv.
(34) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. xiii.
(35) Jacob Needleman “Introduction” in The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work ed. Jacob Needleman (Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2008, p. xiv.